It's a whole different world out there at night. I don't mean casual club-going hours, I mean like 2 and 3am, when everything shuts down. Businesses closed, parking lots empty, or maybe just a few lights on for the cleaning crew, the third shift workers, the people still at the office. An ocean of darkness dotted with islands and oases of light. Sooner or later, most of us find ourselves out there for one reason or another, maybe willingly, maybe not. Usually it's okay, but sometimes the world at night makes us nervous. It's too still, too quiet. As the author Poppy Brite once wrote: "Night time is the hardest time to be alive. 4am knows all my secrets."
Shuttle is an elegantly constructed nightmare and morality tale about what waits for us in the darkness. Seriously, this movie stayed with me for days.
It's the simplest of premises: Friends Mel and Jules are returning from vacation, and end up on the last flight in. They can't get a cab, and are trying to grab one of the last shuttle service runs for the evening so they don't end up stuck at the airport overnight. They're being followed by a couple of guys who are trying to get their attention, being attractive women and all. Maybe if this were sunny Cancun it'd be flattering, but it's late, late at night at the airport, and they just want to get home, so it's a little creepy. There are a couple of shuttle buses willing to take them, but at the last minute, one of them offers to take them for a reduced rate. Mel and Jules hop on, thinking they're avoiding a potential assault from two otherwise harmless-looking frat boys and getting a deal on transportation in the bargain. At the last minute, the two guys - Matt and Seth - jump on, and these four, plus a driver and another passenger, head into the darkness.
So things are a little tense as Matt and Seth try to hit on Mel and Jules, but what none of them seem to notice until it's too late is that the shuttle driver isn't taking them in the right direction. He's headed for the abandoned outskirts of the city.
He has no intention of taking them home.
In theory, at least, we risk this every day. Any time you get onto the last bus home, the last shuttle from the airport, take that late-night gypsy cab, you're doing so on the assumption that the driver is going to take you where you need to go. What if they don't? What if they approach your exit and keep right on going? What happens next?
In this case, what happens next is a long trip further into darkness. At first, the driver's demands seem pretty much like larceny - empty wallets of cash and credit cards, etc. But over time, as the shuttle winds further and further into deserted warehouse districts, his demands become more and more bizarre. And as in most any hostage situation, the dynamic between the hostages gets more and more complicated - some want to comply in hopes of staying alive, some want to overpower the driver. They're pitted against each other as much as they are the driver. They try to get help, but the driver does a good job of keeping a tight leash on all of the passengers. This isn't some disgruntled driver who finally snapped - this is a pro. He has done this before. He has planned for every contingency.
Shuttle does an excellent job of using the ordinariness of the situation as something claustrophobic and demoralizing - why run for help? There's nobody for miles because they're all home warm in their beds. Call the police? The first thing he did was destroy your cell phones. Just do as he asks, no matter how strange, and maybe it'll all end up okay. This is the city, after all. Not gang territory, not the deep wilderness, just a manufacturing district. Just one of the stretches of darkness between oases of civilization and light.
It'll come as no surprise when I say that it doesn't all end up okay, but just how not-okay it's going to end up is where much of the power of this movie resides. The situation is bad, really bad, and it unfolds as slowly and inexorably as the shuttle itself moving through the streets. Every bizarre thing the driver does has a very specific and frighteningly mundane purpose, one which isn't at all obvious until the very end of the movie. A series of disconnected events and apparently irrational decisions come together, and events take a turn, then another turn, then a sudden reversal, then a negation of that reversal, and then a deeper, stranger turn into hazy nightmare territory of a type usually mined by David Lynch. As an even deeper darkness is suggested in the final act of the movie, it's almost an afterthought to the reality of the protagonists' situation, and the only thing more devastating than its conclusion is the small gesture of humanity that accompanies it, its thoughtfulness somehow making the whole even more obscene.